Category Archive • Teacher training
October 15, 2004
Cosby – his message and his example

Every few days I type the word "education" into google, the "news" bit, and see what comes up. Mostly it is American. Mostly it is politicians. Mostly, the news is bad. Education is terrible. More money must be spent on it. Candidate X will emphasise the importance of education more than his frankly very similar opponent Y. Blah blah blah.

When the news is not American, it is usually even more depressing. Education is vitally important, more money must be spent on it, but where will that come from? Woe woe woe. Etc.

I am always on the look-out for the different story. I look for the particular, and I look for good news. I look for individuals who are making a difference and doing so with their own efforts, rather than merely begging for money or lusting for office.

This, from earlier in the week, even though, like almost everything I seem to have written about this week - such is the Internet - is also American, is the kind of thing I mean:

Actor and comedian Bill Cosby is set to visit four Richmond public schools Monday and speak about the importance of education.

His stops will include: Thompson Model Middle School, George Wythe High School and Carver and George Mason elementary schools. The events will not be open to the public.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, whose mayoral campaign office helped plan Cosby's visit, said his longtime friend will likely talk about "the need to stay in school and the need to end this senseless slaughter."

"He feels a lot of people and a lot of kids have lost the fight within them to be something. And, consequently, they turn on each other," Wilder said of Cosby. "He said, 'Doug, I think they lost the fight.' He means they lost the spirit to achieve. I think he is right."

"A lot of these kids don't look past 25. They don't intend to live forever. They go out and have a baby . . . Get me a nice ride. Have some expensive jewelry. And that is it. They don't look toward middle age. They don't look toward a retirement. They don't look toward raising a family or providing an opportunity for other families."

The actor, who is known for his stand-up comedy and his sitcom role as Dr. Cliff Huxtable, generated controversy in May when he criticized some blacks for their grammar and accused others of not properly raising their children.

Unfortunately for Cosby, part of the reason this is news is because he is friends with a politician, Governor Wilder, who helped set up these talks, and Wilder is being accused of using Cosby for political purposes. But the way I see it, Cosby is using his political connections for Cosby purposes, and this is what matters. And what are mayors for if not to give a helping hand to operations like this?

Cosby is not begging for money, nor is he himself seeking to go into politics. He is simply trying to get a message across, to the people who he most wants to hear it, at the moment in their lives when it might make the most difference. Well done him.


I would like to see a lot of other celebrities follow Cosby's example. Not necessarily with anything so grand as a lecture tour, just by contributing to education. These people are nothing if not communicators, and teaching people to communicate is at the heart of teaching nowadays. Lots of these celebs and ex-celebs have more money than they know how to spend. So, instead of wasting the second half of their lives trying vainly to recreate the glories of the first part of their lives, why don't they grow old with a bit of dignity and become, I don't know, classroom assistants, and take it from there? Bob Geldof would have made a great Headmaster.

The teaching profession badly needs people with a knowledge of life outside school. Clearly the teaching profession can make excellent use of some teachers who know their subjects, how to teach their subjects, and very little else. But it also needs people who have lived a little, climbed mountains, fronted rock groups, driven jet airplanes, built skyscrapers, won Olympic bronze medals and organised hugely successful marketing campaigns.

Or for that matter hugely unsuccessful marketing campaigns, because failure teaches you a lot as well as success. You can bet that before that bronze medal finally happened, there were a lot of cock-ups and disappointments. Everest is not climbed in a day, and with no set-backs or back-trackings. And, the occasional teacher who knows what the inside of a prison is like might be able to pass on some good lessons.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:11 PM
Category: Teacher training
October 04, 2004
A golden generation of teachers – when they started and when they retired

On Saturday evening I had supper with my friend and fellow Samizdatista Johnathan Pearce, and very agreeable it was too. We discussed many things, and one of the more interesting things we discussed was one of Johnathan's father's school teachers. Johnathan's father was at school just after World War II, and consequently found himself being taught by, among others, people who had just won the war.

He was apparently taught physics by a young guy, about twenty five years old then, who had, before taking up his post as a teacher, been a navigator in a Pathfinder Squadron. For those not versed in the details of how Britain's wartime bombers went about their grizzly business, the Pathfinders were the ones who went to the target first, and started a small fire on it, which all the bombers would then aim their bombs at. The combination of technical expertise and sheer guts needed to be someone like that is something at which most of us can only, luckily for us, guess.

And one of these young fellows was, as I say, Johnathan's dad's physics teacher. Young, obviously. But also, because young, very keen and energetic. In short, the very essence of Alpha Maleness.

Johnathan's dad goes further, and says it would be interesting to examine the impact upon education, not just of this one young man, but of all the other young men like him who, just after World War II, while still only in their twenties, entered the teaching profession.

Someone like this physics teacher (a) is going to know his physics pretty well, and (b) is hardly likely to be phased by a classroom full of exuberant and potentially rowdy and out-of-control schoolboys.

Now you may say that, now, things are very different, and even the most formidable of men sometimes have a problem keeping in control of classrooms, and I am sure that's true. But the exact chronology of this golden generation of schoolteachers, if that is what they were, is, I think, suggestive.

In particular, ask yourself when these guys stopped teaching. Assume that they were around 25 when they started teaching, fresh from their Avro Lancasters and their tanks and their ships and their Spitfires, and that they retired at around 65. So, add 40 years to 1945, and what year do you get? Well, you don't need much maths for that. The answer is 1985.

Now, 1985 is the approximate time when it is now claimed that education in Britain started to enter its most recent period of being very bad, and in need of much increased central control.

The usual explanation for educational decline, and most especially of decline in discipline and pupil behaviour, is … well, what? Nobody properly knows, other than to note that wider social forces, forces outside of schools, made a big impact upon schools and changed them for the worse. But just what did these "social forces" consist of? All sorts of things, of course, including television, the rights-before-responsibilities mentality encouraged by the welfare state, drugs, the immigration into Britain of some ethnic groups who behave very badly (although others behave extremely well of course), have been blamed for this decline. Other more immediate malign influences on schools have included: idiotic teacher training colleges, idiotic theories of literacy teaching, and, in general, all the stuff you read about here from time to time when I am in a complaining sort of mood. But how about this for at least a part of the explanation? - that during the 1980s a lot of extremely good and, so far as the wider life of the schools they taught in, hugely influential teachers retired, and were not replaced by teachers who were anything like as impressive, and especially not as impressive to young boys. How about that as part of the story of our nation's current educational woes?

Certainly, to judge by the TV adverts being shown by the government now, they would give anything for another generation of men of this calibre and experience of life to go into the teaching profession.

So, there's your answer, start another major war, and hope that a decent number of young men survive it and then, because of the depressed state of the post-war economy, become schoolteachers in huge numbers. Well, not really. But I still say that this is an interesting way of looking at the larger educational picture, usually scrutinised only through a microscope with a label on it saying something like "educational policy".

Here is a gratuitous picture of some Avro Lancasters and of some of the Alpha Males who flew in them and looked after them …


… which I found here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:36 PM
Category: HistoryTeacher training
September 03, 2004
Teacher poaching – don't stop it – profit from it

This definitely remains the biggest school related story just now, with this other horror, also related to the French headscarf ban in schools, not far behind.

But in some ways I found this story to be the most interesting educational titbit in the mainstream media recently.

I have been banging on about educational globalisation here for months. So I am not a bit surprised to see the kind of people whose reaction to any problem is to try to ban it, trying to ban the importing of teachers by rich countries from poor countries, regardless of all the longer term benefits that might result from such a migration.

A clampdown on the poaching of teachers from developing countries to plug recruitment gaps in British schools was agreed yesterday by the government.

Education ministers of 23 Commonwealth states signed up to a package of measures designed to tackle the plundering of teaching expertise by the UK and other states. The poaching has put at risk flagging international efforts to achieve universal primary education within a decade.

This sounds like a classic case of scapegoating to me. They were never going to achieve universal primary education within a decade, and this sets in motion the process of explaining why it isn't their fault but is someone else's.

Instead of moaning about "poaching", why don't these places try to get this thing organised as a valuable export industry? How about some kind of transfer fee system, or something similar. Don't ban it guys. Profit from it. If you are so good at training internationally desirable teachers, be proud, and get rich from it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 PM
Category: Economics of educationTeacher training
June 25, 2004
Buckingham University now does teacher training

Finally, a private sector in teacher training:

What business has the state controlling teacher training? Why do we need teacher training institutions? Shouldn't introducing teachers to their craft essentially be a matter for schools? Shouldn't the role of universities be confined to encouraging teachers to reflect on their practice and formulate their own vision of education?

Such apparently subversive questions are prompted by an approach to teacher training being pioneered by Buckingham, Britain's only truly independent university. The programme is supported – up to a point – by HMC, the body that represents the heads of 240 leading independent schools.

This month, 13 teachers, all mature graduates working in HMC schools, will be the first to complete Buckingham's one-year post graduate certificate in education (PGCE).

Okay, it's a moot point just where in the private/public spectrum your average British university is to be found. But this is definitely a small step in the right direction along that spectrum.

By the way, this is the kind of big media story I am happy to link to, obviously (as Alice Bachini would say). This is because, although it may be big media, the story itself is small. Yes, it includes some numbers, but they are small numbers. 240 heads of independent schools, 13 teachers, and above all, just the one university. Thus, the story is likely to have some vague relationship to the truth.

When the big media recycle the claims of the big politicians to the effect that this or that big number (concerning national exam results for example) has done a small percentage shift in the right or for that matter the wrong direction, I find it all much harder to believe in or to be interested in.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:14 PM
Category: Teacher trainingThe private sector